'Portraits of Perseverance' is an on-going multimedia community project that follows the lives of Malaysian women who persevere in the face of chronic illnesses, disabilities and transgender discrimination. It consists of blogs, video journals and TV documentaries. The first project (2011 to 2012) tells the stories of Lucy, Nisha, Pong and Sulastri. The second project in 2013 brings you Pong’s rehabilitation journey.
Being away from home over the holidays is harder than I thought. As Christmas draws close, I find myself feeling a bit homesick, missing the snow, the traditions and family. When I came to Malaysia I didn’t know a soul. It’s been tough to adjust to the weather and the big city but it hasn’t been hard to meet people.
I have been welcomed into so many homes. The kindness of the “strangers” I have met in Malaysia is more than I ever could have imagined. Ching Ching and Rhonwyn make me feel like one of the girls, giving me a perfect home base, and even when I’m away from KL I still always manage to find a safe place to land.
Pong's House in Ipoh
I went to Ipoh for the weekend to visit Pong and I was blown away by her hospitality! I brought along three guests and she prepared a wonderful meal for all of us. We feasted on chicken, rice, pork and vegetables. After we finished eating, she showed us around the house and we visited with the family. If that weren’t enough, the next day she invited us back for some Nasi Lemak. I’ve called Ipoh the land of 1,000 meals and it’s certainly living up to its name.
During my time in Ipoh, we went to visit Pong three days in a row. The meals were delicious and the conversations inspirational, but the best part of the trip was Pong’s smiling face waiting for us at the door each time we arrived.
What a great smile
Getting to know the women in the Portraits of Perseverance project has been such a gift. I’m learning about strength and dedication and life, plus it’s hard to feel lonely when you’re surrounded by new friends.
Coming into this project I knew there would be challenges. Working in a new country presents unique obstacles and I tried to prepare myself mentally. Coming from a place where I can get wherever I want, whenever I want, I have become a bit spoiled. I am always over-scheduling and over-stressing. Upon my arrival here in KL, I knew I needed the lesson in patience.
Sitting on a bus in a jam last night, in the middle of my three hour commute back to the house, it hit me again. There is no point in getting upset. My getting frustrated won’t make these cars around me move any faster. I might as well just sit here and enjoy the view. There is nothing I have to do tonight that is so urgent that it can’t wait.
What a simple, yet freeing realization. It reminds me of a story that Ching Ching tells me sometimes. It's about a western couple who get stuck in a rainstorm in KL. They are so upset over “wasting time waiting” when they could be out seeing tourist attractions. Then their guide points out how beautiful the rain is. Often, we are so busy getting frustrated with what is coming up next, or what has just happened, that we miss the pleasure that can be found in the “right now!”
Learning from Lucy
This lesson has been reinforced every time I see one of the five women from the Portraits of Perseverance project. If I’m following Lucy throughout her busy day of volunteering or errands, or watching Nisha speak on behalf of the transgendered community. Observing the grace and kindness with which Sulastri interacts with people in her work and play, or hearing Pong matter-of-factly explain why she puts a smile on each morning. When I see Ching Ching slaving away in her home office, making calls, writing emails and tirelessly dedicating herself to a cause she believes in, I am reminded that I too have to persevere.
Maybe I have trouble getting used to big city traffic, maybe I feel alone in a new country, maybe it’s frustrating trying to complete a documentary, but I can do it. I’m already learning so much, not just about journalism, but about life. These are lessons that I will keep with me forever, lessons that can only be learned through trials. Tough times can be great opportunities.
Justina was always the one who did the talking. Lucy Goh remembers her friend fondly. Both SLE (Lupus) patients, Lucy and Justina became good friends. Justina was the one who first told Lucy about eHomemakers. The pair took an eco baskets training course 8 years ago and had been dedicated to the project in various ways ever since. So when Justina suddenly passed away earlier this year it came as a shock to Lucy.
Lucy at eHomemakers
Having just arrived in Kuala Lumpur in November, I never had the chance to meet Justina, but I've heard lots about her from Ching Ching and Lucy. It seems Lucy's shy demeanour was in stark contrast to Justina's boisterous personality. At trade fairs and exhibitions they made quite the team. Justina would deal with the customers and Lucy would keep track of the inventory and the money.
Now that Justina is gone, Lucy keeps coming to eHomemakers. With faithful diligence, she comes every week to sort baskets and help out around the office. She'll even man the table at trade shows, if you ask her really nicely. She's committed to continuing in the path that she and her dear friend started walking together.
Lucy with Justina's ashes
But they're not done their journey yet. Justina always wanted to see the world. When she got really sick, Ching Ching and Lucy promised her that once she was well again, they would see the world. Sadly, that wasn't meant to be, but that doesn't mean her dream has to die. With Ching Ching's help, Lucy is going to take Justina where she never had the chance to go. Her ashes will be spread in various beautiful places around the world.
A trip has already been planned for Cambodia in January. It will be a great opportunity, for Lucy, and her dear friend Justina.
Even though she presents herself in quite a refined way, Sulastri Ariffin is really appreciates the simple things in life. You wouldn’t know it to meet her. Sulastri dresses very well, often wearing fancy earrings and dressy clothes. Every detail of her appearance is perfect and she speaks with a confident composure. Under it all though, she strives for a normal life.
On her off days, when she’s not busy working with the Pink Triangle Foundation, Sulastri spends time in her neighbourhood. She prefers to go to local food stalls for nasi lemak in the morning, instead of spending her time in expensive restaurants with air con and exotic foods. On a Sunday, Sulastri spends the morning doing some marketing around the neighbourhood, seeing the errands as a chance to connect with people she knows in the area as well as a chance to make new friends.
As part of the Portraits of Perseverance documentary a lot of the women are working towards a goal. They have been helping make video journals chronicling their lives over the past year. Watching the videos I have seen them grow and change. I feel like I’ve gotten to know them. Sulastri comes off as a real character. She is so natural on camera. Her sense of humour resonates with the viewer.
You would think that considering her charisma and potential, Sulastri would be working towards a performance of some kind as her goal at the end of the film, but Sulastri has something much simpler in mind. She wants to go fishing. I guess it makes sense, taking her down home roots into account. What better way to cap off a busy year than with a nice relaxing afternoon by the water? It’s a reminder for me to take time to enjoy life’s simple pleasures.
Nestled in the shadows of the limestone caves, in the picturesque setting of Ipoh, Malaysia, lives a truly amazing human being.
Jenny Pong Seow Chin has a gift. If you ever get the chance to interact with her you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s impossible to miss, clear from the moment you see her or hear her voice.
Pong shares a modest home with seven other family members. They live in a lush, green, wonderland, but Pong says she’s never really noticed. She has always been far too busy working to stop and gush over the trees and mountains.
From the time she was young, Pong worked in a tire factory, earning $2/day. It was labour intensive work, but that’s the way Pong likes it, feeling productive and taking care of herself. Even now, confined to a trolley, Pong feels it’s important to work.
When I went to visit her I asked, “Why hasn’t anyone helped you? Why hasn’t an aid group offered you money to buy a new van or house?” Pong told me she’s been offered donations before, but she graciously tells people she doesn’t need a hand out. Not yet. For now she is still able to work and that is important. She would much rather earn her money than have it handed to her.
Right now she is making funeral shoes, to sell as part of a Chinese tradition. Pong has found a way to keep working, even though she is disabled. She doesn’t waste time feeling sorry for herself or worrying about what happens next. Instead, she “brings her happiness to the front.”
She says God gave her the gift of this day, and to be happy in the moment. How many of us have that ability? Even though, on paper, our lives are much easier with Pong’s, few of us have the spirit and the energy to attack the day that she has. That’s why I think Pong’s true calling is to motivate others. If you put a microphone and a crowd of people in front of that woman, you could change lives.
To learn more about Pong's story and past see previous blogs on the Portraits of Perseverance website, or watch some of her video journals also posted on the site!
I watched her sing last night at a benefit for World Aids Day, (December 1st 2011). Nisha was part of a group of performers. Every person was talented but Nisha’s performance was special. She filled the room with her presence. She chose her own rendition of “Colors of the Wind,” from the movie Pocahontas and called it “Colors of the World.” It was creative and fitting for the occasion.
Shaz from the PT foundation wowing the crowd with a colourful performance
I only met Nisha yesterday at the Pink Triangle office where she works, but she and Sulastree were welcoming right away. They filled me in on their schedules and Nisha invited me to hear her sing that very evening. What a treat!
But when I say Nisha was meant to be in front of a crowd, I don’t just mean performing. She has dedicated her life to becoming an advocate for the transgendered community. As part of her job as Programme Manager with the Pink Triangle Foundation, Nisha often speaks at functions. She also organizes events associated with the transgendered community in her spare time. That means she’s a very busy lady!
To Nisha, it’s worth her spare time to spread a message of tolerance and understanding. Because in an environment where everyone seeks to understand his/her neighbours, we are more free to reach our true potential, free of criticism and discrimination. As Pocahontas would say, “How high will the sycamore grow? If you cut it down, then you’ll never know!”
The more time I spend here on the other side of the world, the more I realise how much all of us have in common.